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Fossil fuel divestment would put SF’s money where its mouth is

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If San Francisco is committed to fighting climate change, it must divest city employees’ pensions from fossil fuels. (Courtesy photo)

President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate deal wasn’t surprising. He’s detached from reality, and his administration lives in special interests’ pockets. Their only accomplishments include dividing Americans and hurting kids, farmworkers, marginalized communities and baby bears.

As “The Dude” in the iconic movie “The Big Lebowski” said, “This aggression will not stand, man.” We can’t let corrupt miscreants pee on Earth while the billionaire Koch brothers sit high and dry in their oil tower. San Franciscans must rise against greed and stupidity with passionate resistance and wisdom. We must be the United States we wish to see in the world.

Surprisingly, the San Francisco Retirement Board, the agency charged with managing city employees’ pensions, is offering us a chance to show Trump and his polluting pals our resolve.

For four years, the board has played the role of San Francisco’s skeleton-in-the-closet, stubbornly betting on a fossil-rich future as The City reduces its reliance on dirty energy. Then, last month, out of the blue, Commissioner Victor Makras proposed divesting from fossil fuels citing their dismal performance.

“It’s not a hard decision to get out of a loser,” he said.

Commissioner Leona Bridges seconded his motion, but the item was continued to give the public notice. Supervisor Malia Cohen, president of the Retirement Board, told staff to put it on the calendar for the June 14 meeting. Cohen previously told me she’s “personally committed to continuing to push the board to lead on this issue.”

After all this time, The City could become the biggest pension in the country to divest from fossil fuels.

For years, San Franciscans have pressured the Retirement Board to act. Executive Director Jay Huish has been publicly chastised for slowing progress and not responding to commissioners. Before accepting the mayor’s appointment of Commissioner Wendy Paskin Jordan, the Board of Supervisors wanted assurance she would fight for divestment.

“I think taking a position — a leadership role in that area — is something I easily can do,” she promised.

But she has yet to fulfill her promise.

Instead of acting, she and other commissioners have watched the pension’s energy funds lose money. Coal isn’t king anymore. Advances in technology are reducing oil demand. Experts, including the Commissioner of the Securities and Exchange Commission under President Ronald Reagan, have explained the risks of continued fossil fuel investment to the board. Their decision to keep coal and oil holdings is confounding.

Newly elected Commissioner Al Casciato is the only member who’s played no part in the delay. Instead, he’s used his short time on the board to eliminate burdens slowing divestment decisions. He appears to understand his duty to make good economic and social investments.

It would be “yuugge” if Commissioner Casciato joins Makras, Bridges, Cohen and Paskin Jordan (if she honors her promise) in voting for divestment. The other two commissioners, Joseph Driscoll and Brian Stansbury, may recognize the economic benefits of divestment, too.

A vote against fossil fuels would send a clear message to the oil henchmen behind our withdrawal from the Paris deal.

Of course, the motion could also get delayed or rejected. I’ve been told staff is already claiming they need more time to get information that the board has debated for years. But Commissioner Stansbury, who may become board president in June, is willing to keeping the conversation open.

“I’m not against divestment,” he told me. “I want to make sure whatever decision the board makes is based on sound investment rationale.”

We can’t let divestment die. Supervisor Aaron Peskin has talked about proposing a charter amendment, which would take the decision out of commissioners’ hands. Attorneys are also reviewing whether the board has violated its fiduciary duty, according to insiders. If San Francisco is committed to fighting climate change, we must get divestment passed.

“San Francisco can’t afford to be Paris-blind and remain invested in this life-destroying industry,” said Jed Holtzman, senior policy analyst of 350 Bay Area, a leader of the Fossil Free SF campaign, a long-time advocate for the pension’s divestment. “It’s incumbent to put our money where our mouth is.”

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time. Check her out at robynpurchia.com.

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